While that could have been distracting, Blasphemous excels at creating a chilling atmosphere. The first time you see the Penitent One, he is surrounded by a pile of corpses with matching capirote helmets poking out from the top of the human rubble. Right away, I knew this would be a somber, unforgiving journey. The eery, melancholic tone naturally reminded me of Castlevania games, only bloodier and far more sadistic. The stunning pixel art gives Blasphemous a retro aesthetic, but the detail-obsessed animations are all the more modern — and spine-chilling.
Each area on the sprawling map has a mostly unique batch of foes roaming the halls. There are some repeats and reskins, but generally the enemies at least look different. The snowcapped mountains hold ghouls that spring up beneath the icy surface and wall sculptures that reach out to swipe you with their hands. The library features floating heads and decrepit men boomeranging weighty tomes your way. The convent houses a variety of baddies wearing religious garb, including one who swings an ornate metal container. Only after she pummeled me multiple times did I notice the moving limbs protruding from under the lid. The devil is in the detail, as they say. And the details here are downright devilish.
There’s no denying that Blasphemous feels familiar. It’s a rather traditional 2D Metroidvania, complete with a variety of distinctly themed areas that can be visited in a non-linear fashion. It has Dark Souls-style save points called Prie-Dieus and punishing combat that relies on frequent dodges and well-timed parries. It draws on these inspirations well, but beyond its top-notch atmosphere and animations, Blasphemous fails to stand out in an overcrowded genre that’s home to some of my favorite games of all time like Hollow Knight and Owlboy.
Combat is mostly a reactive experience, often turning into an engaging but robotic game of cat and mouse as you rush in, get in a couple hits with your trusty long sword, then either parry or dodge incoming attacks. Parries are particularly satisfying, as they lead to a brief slowdown in time and a devastating counterattack – though the window to successfully parry feels a bit too forgiving, taking away some of the satisfaction of triggering it. Finisher opportunities crop up (seemingly at random) from time to time too, resulting in elaborate, brutal animations in which the Penitent One uses either his sword or an enemy’s weapon to perform an over-the-top execution.
Slick combat animations make even the most basic of enemies cool to fight at first, but their wonder quickly fades. Favoring memorization over swift thinking, Blasphemous is about trial and error, recognizing telegraphed moves and reacting. Over time, especially when backtracking, once exciting encounters started to feel routine, like I was just going through the motions. With little in the way of platforming challenges and only the slightest of puzzles to speak of, Blasphemous relies heavily on its combat. When first visiting a new area, everything is fresh and exciting, but once you spend a bit of time there, that freshness turns stale.
Luckily, each area has a great boss fight to liven things up again. Blasphemous has roughly ten boss fights, each of whom has wildly different looks and styles of play. Some of the boss fights are marvels that really take advantage of Blasphemous’ combat strengths: Dodging and parrying. For example, Quirce, a demon with a capirote hat of his own, fights you in a small, enclosed arena. He has a fiery sword that he lunges at you with or toss around the room. The entire fight is about dodging at the right times and parrying his physical attacks. After a few failed attempts, my strategy found its footing and this encounter ended up being one of the most satisfying sequences in Blasphemous.
The bosses also have the creepiest features. One of them, whom I dubbed Boss Baby, had a crown of thorns on his head, blood smeared across his cheeks, and cloth wrapped around his eyes — er, maybe where his eyes used to be. A giant wrapped in thorns stood behind the baby, holding him as he cried while commanding a serpent, which also happened to have its own face attached to it. A large skeleton wearing a laurel wreath and fancy robes poked me with his staff while the hands that held his body up periodically tried to bat me away. It was wonderfully disturbing.
By and large, the boss fights are engaging and tough, but also fair. However, a few of the bosses come off as somewhat cheap. When hit by certain attacks, you fall to the ground rather than just slightly recoiling. Usually this isn’t a problem, but a handful of bosses have consecutive projectile attacks where you sometimes don’t have time to get back up before getting hit again. It can actually lead to runs where just a single mistake annoyingly condemns you to death.
Sword upgrades spice up the combat, adding even more stylish attack animations, charge attacks, upwards slashing finishers, and my personal favorite, the lunge attack, which combines dodging and stabbing to create the perfect long-distance hit. All of these naturally fit in with the fine-tuned basic maneuvers. Sadly, other aspects of Blasphemous’ combat systems are somewhat impractical and borderline superfluous.
While exploring you come across Prayers, special abilities that use a magic called Fervour. Prayer spells can increase attack speed, call in aerial attacks, create large area of effect attacks, and more. Activating a Prayer, however, initiates an animation in which the Penitent One strikes the ground with his sword. You can still get hit during this time, making them frustratingly hard to activate. Since bosses are relentless, I frequently took damage while trying to activate a Prayer. Any attacks that used Fervour, including the unlockable sword throw, ended up feeling like more trouble than they were worth. By the time the move was ready to go, I could’ve done more damage with my sword without risking bodily harm.
In a way, avoiding the use of Prayers made the penalty of death less consequential. You don’t lose Tears of Atonement (currency) from dying. Instead, your Fervour meter begins to rot, lowering your maximum until you return to the spot of your death or pay to receive a blessing. Resting at a Prie-Dieu brings defeated enemies back to life, further mimicking Dark Souls. But death doesn’t feel like an extreme punishment, which is a tad disappointing for a game with such a menacing atmosphere.
The same logic applies to blood vials, which the Penitent One comically smashes on his helmet before consuming to regain health. You start out with two but can acquire more, and while the animation isn’t as long as the Prayers, it’s pretty easy to get hit while healing and ironically wind up with less health than you had before. Looking for key moments during boss battles to heal was always part of my strategy. But unlike prayers, the risk that came with healing paid off when I played smart.
Three other categories of items, Rosary Beads, Relics, and Mea Culpa Hearts can be found in chests, hidden passageways, and areas that require some quick-footed platforming or adept combat skills to reach. These are defense buffs, attack boosters, and health boosters — the standard stuff. The Rosary Beads in particular could make a real difference, so I felt encouraged to take every detour and scour the lands for new beads to equip.
That said, none of these items changed the way I approached combat. There are no equippable systems to play around with, so what I started with was largely what I used throughout the entire 19-hour campaign. The mechanical wrinkles Blasphemous does add throughout are mostly shallow, relying on its ever-changing presentation to keep you entertained throughout.
This article was originally published by IGN.COM